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A Less-Than-Credible Look Inside the Islamic Republic : HOLY TERROR Inside the World of Islamic Terrorists by Amir Taheri (Adler & Adler: $19.95; 332 pp.)

December 27, 1987|Robin Wright | Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former Middle East correspondent and the author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam." and

With two dozen U.S. warships and more than 25,000 American troops deployed in the Persian Gulf, Iran and its intentions are, once again, agonizing Washington's policy-makers. Indeed, the potential for conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic in the strategic oil sea lanes makes the 1979-'81 hostage trauma seem small scale.

Amir Taheri's "Holy Terror: Inside the World of Islamic Terrorism" will certainly further fuel the passions that have, more often than thoughtful policy, determined the status of relations between Washington and Tehran. "Radical Islam is bound to end in terrorism" is the premise of his book, which examines the impact of Iran's brand of Islamic zealotry throughout the Middle East.

Fundamentalism's "goal is religious, not political--to create a worldwide Islamic revolution, beginning with the current Muslim states, then moving on to recapture the countries that succumbed to Christianity during the crusades," the dust jacket warns.

Taheri, a former Tehran newspaper editor now in exile, acknowledges that the various Islamic groups--notably Lebanon's hostage-taking factions--are not totally controlled by Iran's theocrats. Yet the overall impact of his book is to portray a monolithic force that has been a menace for 13 centuries.

"The assassination of President Sadat by a group of Islamic fundamentalists (in Egypt in 1981) must therefore be seen as the continuation of a tradition that began with the dawn of the faith. Three out of the four Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet were assassinated by those who considered them to have become weeds," he writes.

"Islamic fundamentalism had lingered in the background of Muslim political life for generations, making occasional bloody eruptions. It resembled Count Dracula, the prince of the 'undead,' who rejected the past while haunting the present."

In chapters entitled "I Kill, Therefore I am" and "The Brides of Blood," the book provides chilling detail--often inadequately or questionably sourced--about the camps where suicide bombers and assorted other terrorists are instructed on a "mixture of theology and target practice" and about the network subsequently spawned in places such as Lebanon.

An estimated 3,000 terrorists have been trained in Iran since 1981 at a cost of about $200 million, he claims. In one of several questionable estimates, he adds that between 1983 and 1986, "elements of Holy Terror were responsible for more than 570 attacks on American interests in the Middle East." The State Department's Counterterrorism office puts the total number of attacks in that category at 85 during that period.

Almost nine years after Iran's revolution and two decades after fundamentalism first emerged, Islam is indeed now the most energetic and dynamic single force in the Middle East, challenging governments of both left and right. Yet this volume does not adequately point out that dozens of groups in 23 nations stretching from Iran to Morocco--including a burgeoning movement in Israel's occupied territories--differ widely in form, tactics and goals.

Taheri defines all fundamentalism as extremism, with little distinction between fundamentalists who want to reform the system along Islamic lines and extremists who support overthrowing the system through violence in favor of a theocracy.

The largest movements in many states are in fact nonviolent. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which was elected as the largest opposition force in Parliament in April, seeks implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Egypt. But it has not advocated abrogation of the Camp David accords with Israel or breaking off relations with the United States.

The goals of Tunisia's Islamic Tendency movement, which Western envoys concede has at least 20% popular support, are almost timid. Its platform calls for "the reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party politics, the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy, and a return to more moral and religious values." It has repeatedly petitioned to become Tunisia's fourth political party.

Taheri also virtually dismisses economic, social and political factors behind the current rise of religious fervor in Iran and elsewhere. He does not take into consideration the failure of a host of leaders and decades of experimentation with modern ideologies to achieve economic progress or independence from superpower domination. Islam is unique among the world's major monotheistic religions in that it is not just a religion but a religious policy complete with rules of law. It thus has appeal as a logical alternative.

Nor does he factor in the impact of now well-documented incidents, for example, of CIA involvement in putting the shah back on the throne in 1953 or the firing of U.S. warships on Muslim militias in 1983-'84 in Lebanon as motives for anti-Americanism--although these and other events do not excuse the bloody misadventures of Islamic extremists throughout the region.

The credibility of "Holy Terror" is undercut further by factual errors. Taheri places former National Security Adviser Robert MacFarlane in Tehran before the arms-for-hostage scheme was hatched and misdates basic events such as the Lebanese civil war and Syria's ruthless crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists.

In light of recent events, "Holy Terror" is, however, likely to have strong appeal, for it reinforces current Western stereotypes. But historic context and a sense of proportion, not hysteria, are needed at a crucial juncture in the United States' conflict with Iran and, on a broader level, with militant Islam to prevent what Taheri portrays as unavoidable.

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